Best No-Nonsense Novel Writing Tips, Part III: Dynamic Dialogue


Writing dialogue is tricky. It needs to sound realistic, but it can’t be too realistic. We all want our characters to sound like real people, but when people talk, there are a lot of unnecessary words tossed around. As writers, we have to carefully craft what our characters say so that the words seems effortless, but yet serve a purpose (like all of our other words, right? Right.).

So how do you create killer dialogue that seems effortless and does its job? Read on.

1.Let dialogue propel your story. Too often we fall into the mire of backstory and lose the reader. Break up those huge passages of exposition and let your active scene reveal the same information through character interaction. For example: instead of writing pages and pages about your heroine’s recollection of a pivotal event in her childhood, have her argue about that event with her sister, revealing what happened through their dialogue. Bonus: you’ll also reveal something about the sister.

2. Train your ears with TV shows, movies, and plays. The best thing I ever did for my fiction writing was to take a scriptwriting class. Stuart Spencer’s The Playwright’s Guidebook will change your life. This will teach you to make every word count, and to use dialogue the same way you use exposition: to reveal character, create drama, and keep moving the story forward. Some TV shows I love for their dialogue: Gilmore Girls, the Newsroom, Justified, and yeah, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s super easy to get copies of plays, like Closer and How I Learned to Drive, for less than $5. Check out contemporary award-winning plays as a starting point.

3. Pay attention to the way people talk. I mean really pay attention. Listen for little idiosyncrasies that make a person’s speech unique. Do they speak in clipped, short sentences? Do they ramble and use ten-dollar words? Do they answer you with questions? One of the hardest things to overcome is the tendency to make all of your characters talk the way you do. You may be sharp and sarcastic, but if ALL of your characters speak that way, then your writing becomes unrealistic and boring. You need variety, and for that you need to develop an ear for differences in people’s speech.

4. Remember that people rarely speak in well-crafted sentences. You can always have a character that is super-eloquent and that’s part of their speech and personality, but for most of us, our dialogue is clipped and messy. In real life, people talk over each other, they interrupt, and they shorten phrases. “Doing ok today?” “Yeah, you?” As you revise, cut the unnecessary words from your dialogue to keep the story moving.

5. Use dialect and slang spelling sparingly. While it may seem accurate to you, the writer, it can be jarring to readers. I’ve tossed a lot of books aside simply because there was too much dialect forced on me—too much “lotsa,” “somethin’,” and “nuttin.” Instead of having your southern character drop the ‘g’ in every single word, write a line of exposition that describes his Carolina lilt and limit his shortened words to only “darlin’.” Nail that regionalism in one good line of description, and that’s all your readers need to hear him the way that you intend. Trust your reader not to need words spelled out phonetically to comprehend what an accent sounds like. Saying something like, “When she said my name, it sounded like Crease,” is enough to get your point across.

6. Read your dialogue aloud. Better yet, get a couple of your friends to read the dialogue in your scene as if it were a scene in a play. Have them only read speech, with no narrative. Listen for #1-5 above. Do your characters sound different from one another? Do they have distinct voices? Eccentricities? Does it sound like a real conversation, or does it sound over-written? If you struggle with dialogue, it makes a world of difference to hear it spoken rather than simply read it over and over as you revise.

7. What’s not being said in a scene is equally important to what is being said. Subtext is a valuable tool in your writerly arsenal. What is omitted in a conversation can be extremely important to character and plot, and a good writer of dialogue knows what needs to be said and what does not in order to create tension and suspense.

As an exercise, go back to one of your favorite books and turn to a scene that is heavy with dialogue. Look at it in terms of the list above. How does the author make the characters’ voices distinct? How is the dialogue used to move the story forward? Is the dialogue conveying information that might have been told in exposition? One of the best ways to learn to write good dialogue is to read good dialogue—so get out there and start picking those scenes apart. The more you study, the easier it will be to see what works and what doesn’t. The surest way to write dynamic dialogue is to practice until you hear the characters talking in your head—that’s when you know you’ve leveled up. 


This article was originally published by underground Books Reviews in 2017. Come back for Part IV of my five-part series next week. Happy New Year, Friends! 

Best No-Nonsense Novel-Writing Tips, Part II: Propel Your Novel Forward

Note to readers: This month, after speaking with a client about his novel-in-progress, I’m re-posting a five-part series full of writing tips that originally appeared on In these articles, I offer some advice that I’ve shared with my writing clients and students over the years. If you have a topic you’d like some advice on, shoot me an email. 


road map for writing


What we need here is a road map. 

As a writer, I’m torn. I enjoy the discovery that happens while writing, as many of us do. I delight in letting characters develop organically, based on decisions they make and conflicts they create. Part of the joy of writing for me is having surprises happen along the way.

But sometimes that’s the hardest way to write.

Sometimes that means staring at the page, waiting for ideas to collide in my brain, the way atoms collide during fission. Sometimes the waiting is a fun part of the process: I drink coffee, re-watch episodes of Lost, draw goofy animal drawings in between writing scenes. Some days that’s okay.

Some days though, I really need to make progress, burn through some pages, and feel like I’m making headway and getting closer to the end.

My solution? Make a map. It’s a kind of outline, but don’t worry—this is not a boring outline that details every action in the book, leaving no room for surprises along the way. Here’s the way it works for me:

1.Make a map of major events you know will happen in the book. You don’t have to know every single one, and you don’t have to know the ending. Consider “Raiders of the Lost Ark” as an example. Upon starting, your outline might have looked like this:

a. Indy learns his mentor is missing and the Nazis are searching for him.

b. Indy realizes the Nazis are looking for the Ark.

c. Indy goes to find his mentor, find mentor’s daughter Marion instead.

d. Indy and Marion go to Cairo to find another friend of Indy’s and stop the Nazis.

e. Marion is kidnapped, but Indy thinks she’s dead.

f. Indy locates the Nazis’ dig site; confrontations ensue.

g. Indy finds Marion.

h. Indy finds the real location of the ark.

i. The Nazis find Indy and the ark.

Each of these events are pivotal points in the story: they are potential crossroads moments where the protagonist has to make a decision, creating more conflicts to be resolved later.

2. Remember my previous post about crafting plotPart of what you’re doing with an outline is creating a map of chain reactions. You’re mapping decisions at these pivot points to create action and develop scenes.

Take (c) for example. Indy travels to Nepal, looking for his mentor Abner. Instead, he finds Marion, Abner’s daughter, in her tavern. She tells Indy that Abner is dead; she won’t give him the artifact he’s looking for. Nazi thugs come into the tavern, pick a fight, and the tavern catches fire. Marion then insists on going with Indy in search of the ark because of this debt he now owes her.

Indy’s making decisions here. He makes the decision to look for Abner. Then he tries to buy the artifact from Marion. Then he gets in a brawl with the thugs. Then he agrees to take Marion with him. Each move that happens in that scene escalates the action and the tension. It moves the story forward. One decision/action leads to the next.

3. Flesh out the scene based on the decisions being made. Here’s where the discovery happens for me. If this were me writing Raiders (and oh boy, I wish I had), I might have planned everything above, but when I was writing, I’d decide that Indy and Marion have a history: a romance that ended badly. That’s why she doesn’t want to sell him the artifact he wants from her. But maybe she still has feelings for him, which is why she insists on going with him when the tavern burns down. Now she’s going with Indy for two different reasons, and that leads to complexity and tension down the road—especially if those two desires are in opposition to each other.

4. Use the outline to sketch out character bios. Jot down some major strengths and flaws of each one. Write down what each character wants, what each one fears. This will be useful later, when you’re fleshing out scenes and connecting dots between those events you created. What makes a novel strong on an emotional and psychological level is to have believable motivations for your characters (and to create conflicting motivations). To have believable motivations, you need to know what everyone fears and desires. This is how you keep your protagonist in hot water, and keep up momentum in your story. Ruthanne Reid has a helpful post about some ways to keep your hero on her toes.

I didn’t map much out for my first novel, Bayou My Love. Writing it was hard and slow-going because I had a general trajectory, but not actual plans for scenes. I wasn’t thinking in terms of chain reactions. When I wrote the sequel, Bayou Whispers, I mapped it out. I used Scrivener (which I can’t rave about enough) and did each of the four things above. Creating a road map for my novel meant that I could calculate pacing as I filled in the gaps. It was easier to write one scene that led into the next because I had direction. I could sit down on any given day, look at my map, and see the next point in the story I was writing toward.

The best part of all this? My writer’s block dissolved. I was problem-solving, which was fun, and I was able to keep my hero in trouble because I was constantly thinking of each action leading to another problem. No blocks meant I was less tense, and less tension meant I could loosen up, have more fun as I wrote those scenes and filled in the gaps. The logical part of my brain was appeased, so it relaxed and my creative part could take the reins and allow those moments of surprise and delight to come onto the page.

Happy writing, Friends. Look for Part 3 of this five-part series next week.


This post was previously published at Underground Book Reviews, October 2016. Image is courtesy of 

Best No-Nonsense Novel-Writing Tips, Part I: Jump-start Your Novel

After speaking with a client this week about his novel-in-progress, I’m re-posting some articles chock full of writing tips that originally appeared on In this five-part series of my Best No-Nonsense Novel-Writing Tips, I’ll share some of the most helpful tips and exercises I’ve learned over the years to get through those hard writing days. I share these with my writing clients and students, so this Christmas I’m sharing them with YOU. If you have a topic you’d like some advice on, shoot me an email. Happy writing, friends!


True confessions time: Most of the time, the first chapter is the hardest for me to write. By far. We’ve all been there: you have this great idea for a book, and then you sit down to start it and your fingers freeze, and your brain is going in a dozen directi
ons, and the next thing you know, you’ve blown a fuse and it’s been an hour, and you’ve deleted the first line forty times, and you’ve typed three words. Not even a whole sentence.

Sometimes this happens because I’ve got an idea of what needs to happen in the story, but I psych myself out trying not to write a “warm-up”—you know, that whole chapter you write to get into the groove where nothing really happens and you describe what a place looks like, or what a person looks like and you have to delete the whole thing in your rewrite because NOTHING IS HAPPENING.

Anne Lamott might say, “Just keep writing. It’s the Shitty First Draft.”

I love Anne Lamott, but I hate wasting that time on the chapter that I know I’ll delete later. I need a little more efficiency in my life right now. I need to have momentum, and I’ve learned two tactics that help me create momentum and keep it going through a draft to the end.

1. If you’re having trouble starting (and feel like you’re in boring expository land), start in the middle of the action. Pick a scene that you know your protagonist must endure, and start writing her into trouble. (This is not a ground-breaking idea, for sure. It’s one I heard a long time ago as an exercise in writing, but one that I clearly forgot about for a while. So this is me remembering it and reminding you.)

I’m always willing to be the guinea pig, so I tried it last week, stumped over how to start my next novel. I answered a call to be part of an anthology that asked for “rom-com novellas involving dogs.” This intrigued me because (1) it was a chance to join forces with some other writers and (2) write a comedy and (3) I like a challenge. The deadline is fast approaching, and I didn’t have any work-in-progress that fit the editor’s needs. To get out of my writerly funk I needed a kick in the pants and some motivation to get past page one of my next book.

Sometimes when I get stuck, I need some parameters and a deadline. My brain just needs the pressure, I guess. So I joined this group, thinking that the eight-week deadline would be enough to force me to start my next Bayou story. I had an idea of what I wanted my protagonist to do, and had a trajectory for her (more on that later), but didn’t know where this story needed to start.

And that not knowing was crippling me.

So I started mid-scene. Chaos in the kitchen. With a dog. My protagonist wants something and the dog stops her from getting it. (Remember that thing Kurt Vonnegut said, about how “Every character wants something, even if it’s just a glass of water”?) Our job as a writer is to stop our protagonist from getting what she wants. Repeatedly. So I started the scene, stopped her from getting what she wanted, and ramped up the action. The next time I looked, I had 1200 words. Curse broken. Now she’s on the path to comedic romance and the story is moving along nicely.

2. Create a trajectory for your character based on her decisions and their consequences. I’ve become one of those people who writes out a basic story map. I don’t plan every single thing that will happen in my book, but I do plan a series of events that are set into motion based on my protagonist’s choices. My writing partner and I were talking about this one day, discussing how we needed our heroines to make decisions and deal with the outcomes. Instead of having things happen to them, we needed to make our heroines make decisions that set other events in motion. In short, they needed to cause things to happen. After all, that’s what reveals depth of character and creates plot.

It’s like billiard balls on a table. When one ball is struck with the cue, it strikes another ball and sets off another event, another collision. To be an active engaging character, your protagonist needs to do the same. Her actions need to create consequences that she must then deal with (and then the cycle repeats, and you raise the stakes). 

Often times, this difference between active and passive action is the difference between a mediocre story and a compelling one. A compelling character needs to act and choose, rather than simply react to what befalls her. (If you need a homework assignment, look at a protagonist from one of your favorite novels: are things just happening to this person, or is that character causing events to happen? The most compelling stories have active characters steering their own lives. The drama unfolds as they make good decisions and god-awful ones.)

Sometimes I know exactly where I need to start a story—but more often I don’t. And lately, I find myself stalling when I don’t have a clear idea of an event I’m writing toward. Thinking in terms of my character’s decisions and the fallout from her actions has helped me gather the momentum I need to get deep into the story, where the magic really starts to happen and the heart of the story is revealed. And as a bonus, the reason your characters make their decisions will often lead you to the crux of your story, making it resonate deeper with your readers.

Tune in next time for Part II, when we propel you novel forward.


This post was originally published with Underground Book Reviews in March of 2017. Update: that above scene that happened in the kitchen? It turned into my latest novella, JUST THE TROUBLE I NEEDED, which you can see more about here

5 Novels that inspired this snowed-in writer

This weekend I was snowed in. I had not expected snow when I awoke on Friday. I’d expected to go to the DMV and then prepare for the local craft guild’s annual art market on Saturday. But the snow kept coming, and the show was cancelled. I’m so used to running around and putting out fires that being confined to my house, in the quiet, gave me an excuse to do whatever I wanted. With all of my plans thwarted, I thought, “Hey, Lauren, you finally get to do what you’ve been putting off most.” Writing! YES. 


I searched for the notes I’d made for the next novel I’m preparing to write. This is the time when I freak out about writing a new book: when I have an idea, have some characters in mind, have an idea for a conflict or two, but haven’t figured out how to connect the dots. I usually draw myself a kind of treasure map to suggest some connections between points A and Z, but I have lost that map. I put it aside over the summer, knowing I’d have to come back to this project now, when I had more time. (HA! When do we ever get “more time”?)

The map has evidently been swallowed by the house. (Some days my house feels like the one in Poltergeist, waiting to swallow everything like the gaping singularity that it is.) Now I must start from scratch. I’m anxious and I need my road map.

In a few days, I’m headed out of town for the holidays. Usually, Christmas means all kinds of chaos for me. But this year, my sweetie says I can pretend to be a hermit at his house. “It can be your writing retreat,” he said. I think that might be the best Christmas present ever.

I need a map before my plane lands. I need to point myself in a writerly direction and GO. This will be my novel writing month, a little behind all the NaNoWriMo folks. But still, this novel is something that is burning a hole in my brain, needing to be written. I have a deadline after all, and my writing partner has already finished her novel. (GAH. SHE IS ON SCHEDULE, DAMMIT.) I hardly had time to write over the summer, and missed it terribly. This retreat will be my chance to cross-train my creative muscles and get myself back in fighting writer shape.

Good writers always say you have to read to be a great writer, and I believe that. I love a good story, but in some ways, reading is research for the craft. Even when I can’t make myself write, I read. And my future books are better for it.

Here are five books that inspired me recently, based on anything from character to dialogue to colorful prose:

  1. Wicked in a Kilt by Anna Durand. This is a straight up rom-com that had me glued to the pages. I read it over a weekend, staying up way too late at night, getting smitten with Erica and Lachlan. I do love it when romance and comedy come together in a book as delightful as this one. I didn’t want it to end, and was absolutely delighted by the chemistry between the characters and the playful banter. Can this be a movie, please? There were a lot of things to like about this book, but snappy dialogue topped the list.
  2. Landfall by Ellen Urbani. It took me a while to get through this one, just because of the sadness of the post-Katrina setting. It’s chock full of tragedy, but there’s an awful lot of fierce beauty, too. The alternating POVs between two young women brought together by one tragic event were done masterfully. The sory moves quickly, digging deep into the girls’ lives, tracing the events that brought them together, and the unexpected similarities that existed between them.
  3. The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill. This was another melancholy one, but I loved this book for its incredible use of language and imagination. O’Neill creates brilliant descriptions, peppered through the pages like confident brush strokes that light up a canvas. I found myself reading some sentences over and over, just to enjoy them again. I love an author who so obviously loves language, and this one used playful, imaginative scenes that balanced the sadness of the characters’ choices in a truly memorable way. It was stark, and raw, and gorgeous.
  4. The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman. I actually listened to the audio book, but found myself wanting to stay in the car long after my commute. Hoffman moved through time seamlessly, propelling the story forward with characters who stumbled through conflicts with fire and grace. I felt like I knew these characters as real people by the end of the book, and damn if I didn’t want to have them all over for dinner. I was of course curious to learn more about the characters from Practical Magic, and was pleasantly surprised by the charm and wonder the story evoked. I expected magic, and it delivered. 
  5. Wonder When You’ll Miss Me by Amanda Davis. A poignant premise with a tragic event sets the story in motion, but Davis creates strong characters that have biting wit. Somehow she manages to make this story both humorous and heartbreaking—a combination I admire because of its complexity. I’m in love with the women in this story—especially with Faith, who is led through the story by an imagined version of her former self, bent on seeking revenge for the cruelty she endured. The best part? Our protagonist saves herself. This is the kind of story that lodges itself in my heart.

Now that I’ve been sufficiently inspired, I’m going to draw a map for that nest book. Happy reading, y’all.